What birthday present do you get for the man who has everything?
In Turkmenistan, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on June 29 got a public park named after him to mark his 58th.
It was a fun day, for the president. As by tradition, Berdymukhamedov was congratulated by his deputy prime ministers and foreign business community representatives, who always seize any opportunity to curry favor.
The opening ceremony came in the evening. The park in the capital, Ashgabat, has been called Arkadag, the Turkmen word for “protector,” which is how the president is known in state media.
Officials have said the park was built at the urging of the general public. This formulation has become the norm used as an apparent justification for the cult of adulation accumulating around Berdymukhamedov.
Last month, a gold-leafed statue of the president atop a horse was unveiled to much marshaled revelry.
Thousands of people carrying flags and banners stood for several hours under punishing 40 degree Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) heat ahead of the park opening. Some resourceful female teachers sheltered from the sun under umbrellas, although that did little to mitigate the intense discomfort.
The inauguration was prefaced by a solemn procession along a downtown avenue by the venerable grey-bearded village elders that typically attend such events. They were accompanied by employees of art and culture institutions and many local residents and young people.
Notwithstanding the heat, government workers did the long walk in exhausting heat in their black suits and long national dresses, energetically waving flags and balloons all the while. Smart formal appearance and scenes of jubilation are a must for the sake of the television pictures.
Also in attendance were the heads of diplomatic missions, who are less accustomed to such agonizing proceedings.
The opening ceremony began with songs praising Arkadag and his enterprise in beautifying the white-marbled capital. Berdymukhamedov is also known as the chief architect of Ashgabat.
As a symbolic ribbon was cut to the clatter of music and applause, colorful balloons floated into the sky.
Other giant balloons bearing the words “Glory to Arkadag” were suspended on all sides of the park, which spans across 7 hectares, about 10 ten times the size of a soccer field.
A giant screen set into a white marble semi-circular arch bore a giant portrait of Berdymukhamedov in a red national robe and tie and a wooly ‘telpek’ hat.
The park is apparently intended as a venue for mass public events, like concerts to celebrate the “Era of Power and Happiness,” as the current period of Berdymukhamedov’s rule has been designated. The inaugural concert lasted two hours. The birthday boy did not make it to the event, however.
Features of the park include two fountains, two cafes, eight pergolas, two playgrounds and an 8 meter-high clock tower.
This fashion of organized and ostentatious fawning is nothing new to Turkmens, of course. Within a couple of years of independence, which came in 1991, books were being published to honor Berdymukhamedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.
The practice is directly influenced by the cult of personality that arose around Soviet leader Josef Stalin and appears intended to create legitimacy by ways alternative to democratic institutions. The Turkmen regime has absolutely no internal opposition and, almost as importantly, little by way of institutional critics abroad.
Russia is regularly assailed with criticism from Western governments for its dismal media freedoms and lack of democracy. The situation is substantially worse in Turkmenistan, and yet diplomats from those same countries scramble to lend respectability to elaborate spectacles of servile flattery reminiscent of North Korea, another international pariah state.
But surely only a hidebound cynic could suggest that Western nations are wiling to suspend their values in exchange of a fleeting chance at getting access to Turkmenistan’s huge energy reserves.